Many people advocate greater production and use of small missile boats of one type or another by the Navy. Unfortunately, these people rarely elucidate a clear and useful mission for these craft. They believe the Navy should have them but they aren’t really sure how they would be used. Is there a use for small missile boats in today’s navy? If so, what is it? How would small boats be used in combat and how would they fare?
A friend of ComNavOps, currently serving in the Navy, offered some thoughts on small missile boats that suggest a valid, indeed vital, use for such craft. Let’s start with an analogy. Carriers use their air wing to keep the area around the carrier group free of unwanted pests so that the group can go about its business. The aircraft are, essentially, regional control platforms for the region surrounding the carrier. In this example, the “region” is mobile, moving as the carrier moves.
Consider, now, the many strategically important and localized areas (regions) around the world that could benefit from a constant naval presence. These include the
Strait of Hormuz, specific areas of the Persian Gulf and , various shipping lanes, chokepoints around the Chinese A2/AD zone, contested sites around the Gulf of Oman and Philippines , etc. These areas are all “peaceful” but would benefit greatly from a continuous naval presence with a respectable combat capability yet able to economically perform the more mundane peacetime activities of patrol, surveillance, and presence. Japan
Now, remembering our concept of regional control aircraft, let’s apply this to the regions we just listed, however, instead of using aircraft let’s substitute small missile boats. Thus, squadrons of small missile boats become our regional control platforms. They perform peacetime patrol, surveillance, and presence functions with enough punch to give an enemy pause but at a fraction of the cost of a multi-billion dollar Aegis ship. The key is having enough combat power in each ship (or the squadron as a whole) to make an enemy hesitate in whatever mischief they might be contemplating. Not to pick on the LCS, but as a comparison point the LCS has no credible combat power and, therefore, offers no credible deterrent effect.
What are the requirements for effective regional sea control? Well, half of the requirement is surveillance. You can’t control what you can’t see. Thus, missile boats should carry the most powerful sensor suite possible for their size and cost and be able to self-designate targets through the complete range of their weapons. Small UAVs might well enter into this by providing long-loiter, long range surveillance as a supplement to the vessels on-board sensors.
|Egypt's Ambassador MkIII - Regional Sea Control Platform|
The other half of the requirement for regional control is, as we mentioned, combat power. You can’t control what you can’t destroy. The threat of destruction is what leads to compliance.
We see then, that our notional missile boats need a powerful sensor suite and credible combat power. There are any number of small missile craft throughout the world that could serve as templates.
Of course, in the event of full scale conflict, small missile boats would be unlikely to survive long on their own. That’s OK, though, because that’s not their function. We have Aegis ships and carrier groups to deal with that type of scenario. However, even in an all-out conflict, small missile boats can be used to maintain regional awareness of lower intensity combat areas and help keep their area free of enemy assets while operating under protective air support or Aegis AAW. Even within the context of high intensity combat, small missile boats could prove to be a useful asset under the right circumstances. I’ll leave discussion of the tactical uses for another forum.
We see, then, that small missile boats could have a valid and highly useful mission as regional sea control assets. Unfortunately, the Navy’s attitude towards small combat craft is not very positive. However, the reality is that the Navy is between a rock and a hard place with ever increasing demands for presence and a severely limited budget and shrinking fleet with which to meet those demands. It’s time for an attitude adjustment, Navy.